Have you considered the implications of church polity on the health of your church? It’s a subject often met with indifference by pastors and their congregations, and in many cases is left up to individual wisdom and preference as though Scripture has little to say on the matter. This culture of polity-agnosticism is exactly why Jonathan Leeman’s book, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (B&H, 2016), is such an important resource. For Leeman, church government may not be necessary for salvation, but it is essential for guarding the gospel and growing gospel people (vii).
In this highly accessible book, Leeman attempts to not only revive the importance of polity in general but to make a biblical case for elder-led congregationalism in particular (16). Though his case rests on numerous elements, including a well-reasoned argument for an institutional hermeneutic (19-31), appeals to church history (85-96), and answering common objections (185-191), his primary and most persuasive argument is found in a biblical theology of Adam’s office as priest-king (57-59).
In the commission given to Adam in the first chapters of Genesis to subdue the earth, Leeman argues that Adam is called to be a priest-king (36-40). In his role as king, Adam is to represent God on earth and expand the borders of the garden. In his role as priest, he is to protect and watch over that which belongs in the garden (39-40). However, as Adam transgressed the law of God and proved himself unfit, this office progressed through Noah and Abraham, and finally to the people of Israel. It was then that the offices of priest and king were separated into the priestly tribe of Levi and the kingly line of David. Of course the Israelites continued to fail in these roles and the promise of a new covenant where the priest-king role would be perfectly fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus was given (49).
Jesus functions as the New Adam, the offspring of Abraham, and the true Israel. He is the perfect King and perfect Priest. He succeeds where all before him failed and this is precisely where the covenantal trajectory culminates in a biblical argument for congregationalism. According to Leeman, as the church is united to Christ by faith, they are called to reign with him as co-heirs (50-51). The primary implication is that the church now identifies with Christ in his Adamic office and are thus “deputized as possessing a renewed Adamic commission” (51). The church, by nature of its union with Christ puts on the Adamic office of priest-king.
Just as Adam was to advance the borders of the garden-kingdom, so now God’s people serve in the advancement of the church through evangelism. Further, just as Adam was to watch over that which belonged in the garden-kingdom, so the people of God are to watch over what and who belongs in the church (53-54). All Christians, then, inhabit the office of priest-king which carries important implications for church polity since local church governance is the location in which these duties must be carried out.
Leeman shows that biblical evidence for this position is located in both explicit and implicit passages of Scripture and corroborated through biblical examples and precedents (61-122). However, the most convincing passage in favor of congregationalism comes from Matthew 18:15-20 where the keys of the kingdom are discussed. Here Leeman demonstrates that it is the gathered assembly who wields the keys as they carry out church discipline.
The argument here is sound. It is in fact the church, not the elders alone, who are given final say over the what and who of the gospel. Therefore, the priest-king office given to Adam that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ does indeed have implications for the church. The whole congregation bears the responsibility to exercise the keys, and where responsibility is given the appropriate authority is required (104).
However, Leeman cannot be accused of being unbalanced in his argument. He doesn’t ignore the biblical data conferring authority on the elders of the church. Rather, he argues that we must do justice to both streams of authority that are biblically mandated. The church should function as a mixed government where the congregation has final authority over the “who” and “what” of the gospel and the elders have a Spirit-given authority to teach, lead, and equip the saints in their use of that authority (142-152).
In conclusion, Leeman’s work is convincing. He effectively argues that congregationalism accords with the covenantal trajectory of Scripture and is affirmed by the New Testament witness. In a time where polity has lost its appeal, pastors and lay people alike will benefit greatly from Leeman’s careful theological and exegetical arguments.
Pastor of King’s Church, North, Conroe, TX
Read articles and reviews like this one in the recent issue of Credo Magazine
Protestantism today faces a crisis in authority. Living in the twenty-first century means we are born into a world that has experienced the full effects of the Enlightenment, Protestant Liberalism, and Postmodernism. Yet at the same time, God’s Word continues to stand undefeated. No doubt, the Bible is under fire today as critics, both secular and evangelical (oddly enough), attack the Bible’s full authority. But if we’ve learned anything from the sixteenth-century Reformation, we know that God’s Word will prevail in the end.
As he stood there trembling at the Diet of Worms, certainly it must have seemed to Martin Luther that the whole world was against him. Yet Luther could boldly stand upon the authority of God’s Word because he knew that not even his greatest nemesis was a match for the voice of the living God.
While our circumstances may differ today, the need to recover biblical authority in the church and in the culture remains. The next generation of Christians need to be taught, perhaps for the first time, that this is no ordinary book we hold in our hands. It is the very Word of God. In other words, if Christians today are to give an answer for the faith within them against those who would criticize the scriptures, then they need to be taught the formal principle of the Reformation: sola Scriptura—only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.
Contributors include Justin Holcomb, Gavin Ortlund, Robert Kolb, Chris Castaldo, Paul House, and many others.